The story of the relationship between Damascus and Tehran over the last four decades is remarkable. Its evolution reveals much about the changing fortunes of the Middle East and the politics of its nations and alliances.
Syria was Iran’s gateway into the region as Tehran sought to establish the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and spread its influence in the wider region from its base in Lebanon.
For the last 10 years, the survival of the regime in Syria has depended on the support of Iran and Iranian militias — especially before Russia’s meddling in Syria from 2015. During this time, Syria became a conduit for Iran’s influence in the region.
In this article, Al Majalla reviews key stages in the relationship between the two countries, from the pivotal year of 1979 (the ‘Islamic’ Revolution) until present day and reveals in detail what happened at a meeting between two major political figures that would shape politics for a generation, with consequences that are being felt right up to present day.
The revelations come from official documents that the late Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam took with him in 2005 to Paris before announcing his defection. The documents detail a meeting between two key figures, who spoke to each other at a pivotal time for their respective countries, the Middle East and the world.
But first, we look at the context of those turbulent and defining times. Syria’s leader at the time, President Hafez al-Assad, sought closer ties with Tehran the moment he saw that Iran’s revolution had prevailed.
A range of various issues and circumstances were also in play during this time when the region was witnessing wider geopolitical flux.
Egypt had signed the Camp David Accords with Israel; President Saddam Hussein of Iraq had reneged on the Charter of Joint Arab Action by Syria and Iraq of 1978; and a dispute had broken out between Damascus and the Palestine Liberation Organisation led by Yasser Arafat.
Al-Assad saw a way through all this disruption for his country via Iran in 1979, taking a path which also led to the signing of a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in the early 1980s.
At the time, al-Assad benefited from the presence of Iranian figures who opposed the Iranian Shah in Lebanon and soon assumed power in Tehran after the revolution.
Syria had already been politically active in Lebanon for years, which provided fertile ground to support the leaders of the Liberation Movement of Iran in Lebanon, via the Amal Movement — a Lebanese Shiite political organisation and former militia. Musa al-Sadr was considered to be the leader of the movement. He was also the head of the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council.
Among the movement's key members alongside him, and the figures who were to shape the future, were the first prime minister in Iran after the revolution, Mahdi Bazarkan; his deputy, Sadiq Tabatabaei, al-Sadr’s nephew; and ministers including Ibrahim Yazdi, the foreign minister who was succeeded by Sadiq Qutbzadeh, and Mustafa Shamran, who later took over the Ministry of Defence.
But an encounter between two other men turned out to be one of the region’s most significant moments — one that would impact and shape the region’s geopolitics for decades to come.
Al Majalla has obtained the memoirs of one of these men — the late Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam. These memoirs, which came to be known as the Damascus Documents, reveal exactly what happened when he met the person chief among this cast of political figures: Ayatollah Khomeini, the force behind Iran’s revolution and the country’s first supreme leader after it.
Al-Assad seized the opportunity presented by the change wrought in Tehran in the last year of the 1970s. He took the initiative to send a "warm congratulations" message to Khomeini, in which he outlined "Syria's keenness on comprehensive cooperation" with Iran.
Fresh out of its revolution, Tehran was thirsty for influence in the Levant. It responded with an even warmer gesture, as Khaddam’s account makes clear.
He received an invitation from Iran's foreign minister, Ibrahim Yazdi, in early August 1979. Khaddam, who at the time was foreign minister, wasted no time. He arrived in Tehran on 15 August and was greeted by Yazdi and Sadeq Tabatabaei, the deputy prime minister.
Ahead of the encounter that would shape much of what was to follow, Khaddam was awakened at three o'clock in the morning by one of his staffers who informed him that a group of dignitaries wanted to meet him, including Sheikh Muhammad Montazeri, son of Hussein Ali Montazeri who was then Khomeini's deputy.
The "revolutionary young man" preceded to launch a scathing critique of the ruling Baath party in Syria, then asked to pray jama’ah, in congregation with Khaddam.
Khaddam met with Mehdi Bazargan, Iran’s then prime minister, in the presence of Yazdi, the minister of foreign affairs, and Tabatabai, the deputy prime minister. The three officials told Khaddam that the revolution in Iran "will work to build strong relations with brotherly Syria."
Khaddam later went with Yazdi to the Iranian city of Qom to visit with Khomeini, making him the first and only Syrian official to meet him.
The encounter began in an ordinary residential area in Qom.
"At the entrance of the house,” says Khaddam, “We greeted a Sheikh who sat at a small desk, passing into another small room, no bigger than six square meters, with an ordinary carpet on the floor.
Khomeini was there, sitting on the floor. He got up to greet us, then sat down again, and we all joined him on the floor. He understood Arabic very well and did not need translation when he spoke to Arab interlocutors. Still, he would always respond in Farsi.”